Apologies for the long gap without posts. I’m hoping I might manage to cobble together some mildly interesting thoughts about the years 2000-2009 at some point. If I do, these will form part two of this post. But for now what I want to write about is the resurgence in people bleating about the last year of the decade being 2010, and so the new decade not starting until Jan 1st 2011. The last time these people were making such a nuisance of themselves was when they were seeing it as their mission to spoil millennium eve for everyone.
I realise I’m usually as much (more?) of an insufferable pedant than the next person, and so you might expect me to be amongst the ranks of people who say ‘There was no year zero! After 365 days Jesus had his first birthday, but a few days later the calendar rolled over to year two. This is because the moment when Jesus drew his first shuddering breath marked the start of 1AD (the first ‘year of our lord’), not 0AD, which is a logically impossible concept.’ I’m not among these people, and for one very good reason:
It’s all made up.
Obviously, so far as I’m concerned, the whole christ story is made up, but even if you’re a dedicated and passionate believer, the specific details of the dates are definitely made up. For a start, Jesus wasn’t born in December. We celebrate it at this time of year because those canny early christians recognised they were never going to overcome the desire to celebrate the winter solstice, and so rather than trying to suppress the festival, they co-opted it. Almost certainly, Jesus wasn’t born (if he ever was) in year one, either. Using astronomical (the ‘star’ followed by the wise men) and historical (the census ordered by Caesar Augustus) data, most people speculate about a date some point between 7 and 4 years prior to the year we regard as year one, though they’re always scrupulously careful to hedge their bets.
The real clincher, though, is that, for the first half a millennia or so, no-one was counting. Most people assume, I think, that the small, dedicated band of Jesus’ followers kept note of when he was born, and that gradually their sense of how long it had been seeped out into the wider consciousness, eventually becoming the key marker in the calendar system. That’s not what happened.
For hundreds of years, no-one had any sense of, or interest in, when Jesus was born (even now, as I understand it, christians are exhorted to regard his birth as an always-contemporary event, not a historical fact relegated to the past). Then, abruptly, a monk called Dionysius Exiguus decided that the year in which he was writing was Year 525. No-one knows why he decided this, but so far as anyone can tell it was entirely arbitrary. Or, to put it more directly, he made it up. Next time you find yourself stuck in a conversation with a boring person who insists on telling you that there was no year zero, be sure to respond by telling them that, so far as we can ever know, there was no year 333 (or 327, or 08, or…well, you get the picture) either, and when are they are going to figure that into their calculations?
As the year numbers are based on an entirely random and arbitrary assertion, there’s simply no point in pedantic precision. In fact, it’s actively misleading, since the spurious precision suggests that the dating system is based on something concrete and absolute when it isn’t. Equally, since the numbering system is entirely arbitrary, there’s no ‘right time’ to celebrate the end of a decade (or a century, or a millennium). It’s no more ‘right’ to celebrate it on the 31st December 2010 than it is the 31st December 2009, or, for that matter, the 12th August 2015. None of those dates has any authentic connection to the supposed birth of Jesus. Given that, it seems to make perfect sense to select as key points for celebration those occasions at which the passage of time is made more than usually obvious by a significant change in the numbers on the calendar.
This is, of course, what everyone does anyway. Ten years ago, when the Queen found herself as virtually the only person in the Millennium Dome who got the hand movements to ‘Auld Lang Syne’ right,* she wasn’t marking anything that had a connection to the birth of an ancient subject of the Roman empire, she was marking the point at which there was a significant change in the numbers on the calendar. When people lift up their glasses and drink to the new decade in a few days time, they’ll be doing exactly the same thing.
* – If any of the development team for MS Word ever happen to read this post (which was initially written on your software), I wonder if you’d be able to answer this question: why does the word in the Scots language ‘auld’ form part of the standard British English dictionary, but not the Scots words ‘lang’, and ‘syne’? It strikes me that the title of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ must be the most famous phrase in the Scots language, so I’m intrigued by the logic that would include just one of the words and not the others.